11 must-watch non-conference games for the 2017 college football season


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The month of May is unquestionably the slowest time on the college football calendar, but this provides opportunity to look ahead to the season.

And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. FOX Sports' Stewart Mandel recently published his post-spring Top 25, and we’ve also taken a deeper dive at teams whose schedules could help or hurt – their pursuit of a College Football Playoff berth.

Speaking of schedules, it’s never too early to look ahead to the biggest games of the season – specifically, the non-conference portion of the slate. Here are 11 games you should circle on your calendar:

NC State vs South Carolina Sept 2 Bank of America Stadium Charlotte NC 11

NC State vs. South Carolina (Sept. 2, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC)

In a loaded Week 1, this one is easy to overlook. However, this game will have a major trickledown impact on both teams, starting with NC State, which seems to have turned the corner under now-fifth year head coach Dave Doeren.

The Wolfpack return virtually every key player off last season’s 7-6 squad (headlined by potential All-American DE Bradley Chubb), giving 2017 one of those “If it doesn’t come together this year, will it ever?” feels to it. With so much promise, the last thing the Wolfpack need to do is start 0-1.

At South Carolina it’s a bit different, but much the same. Year one of the Will Muschamp era was neither a true success nor a failure, as the Gamecocks went 6-7. However, things didn’t quite end the way anyone in Columbia wanted, with South Carolina getting blown out by rival Clemson (final score: 56-7) followed by a bowl loss to South Florida.

It sets up what will amount to a zero-sum game. While the heat will be off the winner, it will ratchet up for whomever is on the losing end.


Nebraska at Oregon Sept 9 10

Nebraska at Oregon (Sept. 9)

This game is equally important for both teams, for entirely different reasons.

On the Nebraska side, it seems like everything that can go right for Mike Riley’s club has over the past few months. The Huskers are coming off a nine-win season, and recruiting is through the roof – but do you know the fastest way to kill all that momentum? Lose to a club coming off a 4-8 season in Week 2.

Meanwhile, it’s probably a little unfair to expect new Oregon coach Willie Taggart to win this one, but he can’t get blown out. A big loss in the first big game of your tenure isn’t exactly the way any coach wants to endear himself to a new fan base.

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Tennessee vs Georgia Tech Sept 4 Mercedes-Benz Stadium Atlanta GA 9

Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 4, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA)

When it comes to Tennessee, here are two unequivocal truths: Butch Jones is squarely on the hot seat entering the 2017 season, and Butch Jones also seems to lose his biggest games at the worst possible times. Anyone remember that South Carolina loss off a bye last year?

Jones is not only entering a make-or-break year, but opening against a club that won nine games last season and has an impossible-to-prepare-for offense in a matchup that will be played on Labor Day in front of the entire college football world. This has “car wreck” written all over it for the Vols. And Jones specifically.

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Utah at BYU Sept 9 8

Utah at BYU (Sept. 9)

What was once one of college football’s fiercest rivalries was put on hiatus for two regular seasons thanks to realignment – but it came back with a vengeance last season when Utah won a 20-19 nail-biter in Salt Lake City. This year, the series moves to Provo and features teams coming off nine-win seasons.

Any time a rivalry called the “Holy War” is played, I’m in. Especially when the teams are as good as the Utes and Cougars have the potential to be.

Michigan vs Florida Sept 2 ATT Stadium Dallas TX 7

Michigan vs. Florida (Sept. 2, AT&T Stadium, Dallas, TX)

This is a fascinating matchup between teams that have a lot of questions. Jim Harbaugh’s club has won 10 games two years in a row, but has questions in virtually every position group after losing 18 starters from last year's team. Meanwhile, Florida has won two straight SEC East titles, but that was thanks almost exclusively to: 1) Muschamp’s recruits, and 2) its defense, which lost seven players to the NFL Draft.

So who will prevail? A young Michigan team? Or a Florida club desperately searching for balance on both sides of the ball? We will get the answer Week 1 at Jerry’s World.

Rick Osentoski Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn at Clemson Sept 9 6

Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9)

Last year, these teams played a Week 1 thriller that came down to the final play of the game. It was a game that ultimately launched Clemson to its first national title in more than 35 years, and propelled Gus Malzahn straight to the hot seat, which he eventually coached himself off.

Although the stakes aren’t quite as high this year, the storylines are nothing short of fascinating. For the home team, this will be the first big test in the post-Deshaun Watson era. A loss here (especially if it’s bad) would go a long way in pushing along the narrative that most of Clemson’s success the past few years came thanks to a once-in-a-generation quarterback. A win, however, would be further proof that Dabo Swinney didn’t just have a great team in 2016, but instead has established a great program.

As for Auburn, optimism is high on the Plains entering 2017 thanks to the arrival of Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. A win would mark the arrival of these Tigers as legitimate playoff contenders. But a loss? It could be the start of a highly disappointing year, thanks to one of the toughest schedules in college football.

Texas AM at UCLA Sept 3 5

Texas A&M at UCLA (Sept. 3)

When these teams played in Week 1 last season, it felt like a make-or-break, lose-and-you’re-on-the-hot-seat opener for Kevin Sumlin. The Aggies won and Sumlin escaped the hot seat for a few weeks. Then came November, when A&M struggled down the stretch for the fourth straight season.

Sumlin enters this rematch with the same stakes: Win, or there will be a lot of angry Aggies come Monday. The interesting twist is that UCLA fans are also frustrated with Jim Mora after a disastrous 4-8 campaign.

Obviously, a loss here isn’t going to cost either coach his job the next day. But it will put one behind the eight-ball in a make-or-break season.

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Texas at USC Sept 16 4

Texas at USC (Sept. 16)

With Texas coming off a second straight 5-7 season, part of me thinks that this one feels bigger on paper than it is in reality. Another part of me can’t help but look at it and think: Texas vs. USC? This is going to be awesome!

It’s probably unfair to expect Texas to win this game outright, but Tom Herman could make a helluva statement about the present and future of Texas football by playing USC – a preseason Top 5 team – tough at the Coliseum. Meanwhile, we know how good the Trojans will be. But there might be no bigger statement they can make than beating Texas team convincingly.

Kelvin Kuo Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame at Stanford Nov 25 3

Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 25)

Like Butch Jones above, we know that Brian Kelly enters 2017 on the hot seat. But unlike Jones – who lost virtually every key player off last year’s club – Kelly returns a ton of talent and has a manageable schedule. Notre Dame’s two toughest games early – Georgia and USC – are both at home. If the Irish can manage everything else outside those games, Kelly should be fine entering this game.

But what if he isn’t? And what if the Irish are, say, 8-3 or 7-4 (or worse) entering a season finale against what’s expected to be a really good Stanford team? Kelly could be coaching for his job during a trip to Palo Alto in late November, and a loss could mean Notre Dame will be looking for a coach by the following Monday.

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Oklahoma at Ohio State Sept 9 2

Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 9)

Last year’s game was one of the seminal moments of the college football season, a 45-24 Buckeyes win that proved – despite losing five first-round picks from the previous year’s team – Ohio State was still a College Football Playoff contender. It also dropped Oklahoma to 1-2, and eliminated the Sooners from the playoff chase before it really began.

And this year the stakes will be no different: We get legitimate College Football Playoff contenders squaring off in Columbus on the second Saturday of the season. This one needs no hype.

Florida State vs Alabama Sept 2 Mercedes-Benz Stadium Atlanta GA 1

Florida State vs. Alabama (Sept. 2, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA)

What else really needs to be said here? Bama vs. FSU. Saban vs. Fisher. The potential No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the preseason polls opening a new stadium.

It’s not often you can say “we’ll get a College Football Playoff atmosphere in Week 1,” but that’s exactly what we’ll have. And it can’t get here soon enough.

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